Language Power Struggles

18 May 2010

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

> American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

> Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

> American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

> Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

> American: [Not at all!]

> Chinese: How long have you been to China?

> American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

> American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

> American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

> Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

> American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

> Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

> American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

> Chinese: I like talking English with you.

> American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

> American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.


At the heart of the struggle is expectations. Each party has an idea in his mind about what language the other party should be speaking in that exchange of information we call communication. I’m going to split these expectations into two groups: pre-contact expectations and post-contact expectations.

Pre-contact expectations are a big, messy bag of preconceived notions about people. These include sweeping generalizations such as “foreigners can’t learn Chinese” or “there’s no way this Chinese farmer can speak English.” These are important, because before either party opens his mouth, they’re informing choice of language for the exchange. These pre-contact expectations include:

– nationality and ethnicity
– cultural and social background
– age and gender
– education and social status
– job or social role
– current geographical position (China, USA, etc.)
– current setting (classroom, coffee shop, etc.)

So, to give a example, when a 50-year-old African businessman walks into McDonalds in Shanghai and there’s an 18-year-old Han Chinese girl behind the counter, there are going to be certain expectations in the minds of each person even before any words are spoken.

Post-contact expectations are established after words are spoken. For the most part, these depend upon actual proficiency in the language spoken, but also upon perceived proficiency. Perceived proficiency can be powerfully affected by “psychological blocks” if one person gets it in his head that “there’s no way this guy is actually speaking to me in language x.” Thus, post-contact expectations should logically supersede pre-contact expectations, but there are some cases when they do not. Below, I’ll talk about the first case, and how these expectations tend to naturally coalesce into something very much like rules.

“Rules” for Determining Language

Within several sentences, must of us can make a judgment about the linguistic aptitude of another person, especially when that person is a non-native speaker of our own mother tongue. With our every utterance, every ill-chosen article, every mispronounced “th,” every inaccurate tone, every rogue particle 了 serves as evidence. It’s a good thing the judgment tends to be quick, because in most cases we would rather communicate information efficiently than waste time debating over choice of language. But in cases where both parties share more than one language in common (native or otherwise), how do they determine which language to use for communication?

This doesn’t seem terribly complicated. Below are some sample situations. Which language do you think would be chosen for communication in each case?

Although there’s no strict right or wrong here, I think that for each case there is an answer which is most likely:

1. Case 1 (Native Chinese, very poor English vs. Native English, very poor Chinese): Since neither side speaks the other’s language passably, you’re probably going to have a lot of one-word utterances, miscommunications, and hand gestures. (Communication FAIL!)

2. Case 2 (Native Chinese, native-like English vs. Native English, native-like Chinese):Since both sides are bilingual, they feel comfortable in either English or Chinese, so you’re probably going to see both, most likely with a healthy dose of code-switching.

3. Case 3 (Native Chinese, decent English vs. Native English, basic Chinese): The Chinese speaker’s English is functional, while the American’s Chinese is quite basic. It would be unnecessarily painful to communicate in Chinese, so in the interest of efficiency, both sides will likely speak English.

4. Case 4 (Native Chinese, decent English vs. Native English, decent Chinese): In this case we’ve got two students (highly motivated to improve proficiency) of roughly equal levels of Chinese and English. The scene is set for a classic language struggle (similar to the dialog above). Assuming both sides engage, the outcome is uncertain, and will probably be determined by the personalities and willpower of the two speakers.

5. Case 5 (Native Chinese, decent English, basic French vs. Native French, good English, no Chinese): Here we add in French. Note that in this case, mother tongue is irrelevant. Since neither side speaks the other’s mother tongue passably, the clear choice is English.

6. Case 6 (Native Chinese, excellent Japanese, good German, pretty good English, poor French vs. Native French, very good English, good German, basic Japanese, no Chinese): This complex situation is definitely not something you see every day. It would take some time for both sides to even discover all the languages the other side speaks. Assuming that they know, however, the choices come down to English and German. While either outcome is possible, I believe that German is the more likely choice. This is because the Chinese speaker gains significantly, and the disparity between the two speakers’ levels disappears. If either speaker is self-conscious about making mistakes, they will feel less so when talking with a partner making a lot of the same mistakes.

So what’s the general rule here? It goes something like this:

> Given a conscious choice between a number of languages to use for interaction, speakers will naturally tend to choose the common language in which the poorer speaker’s level is highest.

Learners of Chinese in China should take special note here: if your Chinese is still at the Elementary level, but you’re trying to practice Chinese with relatively fluent speakers of English (see Case 3, above), the deck is stacked against you. You’re fighting the natural tendency.

Violations of the Rules

The existence of a “natural rule” founded in efficiency can explain a few things. It explains why, even though you really want to improve your Chinese, you never mind speaking in English to your friend that studied in the States for 8 years. His English is just too good, and it feels silly to speak in Chinese. It also explains why you, having learned Chinese in China for three years, feel especially frustrated by food servers who refuse to speak to you in Chinese even though their English is barely intelligible. When people wantonly break the rule, the interaction becomes weird and frustrating.

Have you ever witnessed a situation like the dialog above, where the Chinese side insisted on speaking English, and the English-speaking side stubbornly stuck to its guns and spoke only Chinese? It’s weird. It’s awkward. And it’s fairly common in China. The participants in a struggle like this are not interested in efficiency of communication, they’re merely seeking to win a battle of wills.

There are other reasons speakers break the rule, though. One oft-cited example refers to the original situation in which two people (especially lovers) met. Even if the non-native speaker’s Chinese is quite good now, if when the couple first met they always spoke in English, then it will be hard to break out of that pattern. And it could even be a little dangerous for the relationship to try to do so.

One very obvious “rule breaker” in China is your average Chinese teacher. The teacher likely speaks at least decent English, and perhaps excellent English, but both teacher and (beginning) student agree to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of learning.

In what other situations is this rule broken, and with what result?

Playing the Game by the Rules

I don’t know about you, but I try not to make efficiency my enemy. When I discovered the rule of the language power struggle on my own, I came to a conclusion: if I want to improve my Chinese without all this strife, I need to find Chinese speakers with English worse than my Chinese. It worked. I definitely recommend this approach to frustrated learners of Chinese in China. You’re much better off spending your energy on struggling to understand the speech of old people or somewhat non-standard speakers than on refusing to break down and speak English.

The rule also has an implication on pedagogy, and it’s something that good teachers know instinctively: don’t let your students know the full extent of your mastery of their language. It’s not in the student’s best interest. If your level is high enough that no English is needed for your teacher to teach you Chinese, then you’re better off not knowing how fluent your teacher’s English is. A big part of this is perception, and if the student perceives his teacher’s English level as lower than it actually is, the language power struggle rule will actually drive him to naturally use Chinese for the sake of efficiency. This is a principle which I believe is poorly understood and under-utilized in China. I take special care to train all the tutors at AllSet Learning on this principle.


I believe that engaging in language power struggles, while interesting, is a waste of time. It’s best to understand them, but then to avoid them. Several interesting facts arose from the talk I gave about language power struggles at Xindanwei:

– Many foreigners studying in China are very aware of the phenomenon, and can almost always provide multiple examples from their own lives
– The average Chinese person seems mostly, if not totally, unaware of the phenomenon (certainly no one said, “ha ha, I used to do that to the foreign teachers at my university all the time!”)
– The topic tends to spark discussion among the Chinese about code-switching and “dialect” (which can go way beyond regional variation when used in the Chinese “topolect” sense), which is related, but not the same thing

Again, it would be great if anyone knows of any scholarly research on this subject, or if some intrepid researcher would like to do a study on it.

Please, share your stories, you comments, and your emotional reactions. Let’s bring this silent struggle to light.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Wow!! This is an amazing post. I was JUST having a similar discussion with my girlfriend recently about why I tend not to speak Mandarin with Chinese people whose English is already very good. This brings all my reasons to light!

    I’m also curious as to any linguistic research that has been done on this subject (maybe it’ll be a good area for me to explore myself when I do my linguistics masters next year). If you find any in the future, please be sure to share!

  2. “you never mind speaking in Chinese to your friend that studied in the States for 8 years” Should be English I guess ?

    And I don’t like your examples ;o) The French can’t speak Chinese hum ?

    • Oops, you’re right. Fixed!

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to single out the French. But it had to be some group! 🙂 (Also, the French person in case 6 is doing all right…)

      These graphics were originally done for a Chinese presentation, so they’re rather flattering to the Chinese. 🙂

      • John, Not to do with your above reply, but this article, I think you forgot one, but very important and often overlooked portion of this debate. There are a lot more chinese than foreigners in China. Once this is coupled with living in an area where English language skills are considered important, this leads to the few foreigners being looked at as little more than a tool. For what it is worth, Im a PhD student at a top university in China (which is taught completely in Chinese), and I’ve gotten to the point where I cant be friends with almost any Chinese on campus. The reason is, every time I leave my room, there are 20,000+ people who look at me as a walking English partner, no matter their level of English. This leads to me not really knowing if someone wants to get to know me, or just wants to practice English. I could go on for a while, but Im sure you get my point. The problem is, being looked at as a tool by countless people is both demeaning and degrading. I figured you may want to look into this for your research/future articles.

  3. This rings very true with me. When I was working in Indonesia, first in an office full of girls that spoke English very well, and in their breaks would speak in a very thick local “sociolect” completely excluding me. When I finally found some friends who barely spoke English, but were really interested in getting to know me, my Indonesian excelled rapidly. In China, I’ve never really had this problem, since I’ve always been in places where people spoke very poor English.

    In India, this problem is huge though. I studied Hindi for a year in uni, spent a few months in India, and I can basically follow a Bollywood movie, and I’ve eve read two novels (although extremely slowly). However, all the educated people in India speak English really well (by definition, all higher ed is in English), and might even be slightly insulted if you talk Hindi to them, insinuating that they don’t know the prestige language… I am happy to talk to farmers and stuff, but we don’t have that much to talk about (and they often speak different dialects)… So my spoken Hindi is useless…

    I think that is another factor you should add – the status of the language, how much pride people have in their own language, etc. I have heard many say that it is very hard to practice Cantonese in HK, because people there seem to assume “you don’t need it”… They do speak better English than people in China, but I think it goes beyond that. Just as the case is in India.


    • Good point. One thing that makes this discussion so complicated is all the sociolinguistic variables. You bring up some good ones.

      So many variables also makes it a difficult phenomenon to study, which might explain the dearth of research out there…

      • Hi John,

        I’d agree there’s a dearth of research on the topic – IF you frame it a priori as a “power struggle”. But isn’t that jumping the gun a bit? How come the Chinese don’t see it that way (??). At least, they don’t seem as worried about it, do they?

        I used to teach Sociolinguistics – I’m semi-retired now, so the research I’m familiar with is that in the 80’s and 90’s. I think why you’re having a problem finding relevant material is your focus on the power struggle aspect. If we focus on the “language choice” part of the problem, it starts to look different. The way I see it is that the phenomenon we need to account for is why ppl have conflicting ideas about which language to speak in a situation where more than one is available. Part of “who speaks which language to whom, where and when?”

        Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication

        A lot of earlier research in Sociolinguistics/Ethnography of Speaking looked at bilingual/multilingual speech communities and analysed the patterns of sociolinguistic behaviour in terms of variables – like what triggered the use of French or English in bilingual speakers in parts of Canada, Spanish and English in the US, German and Hungarian in Austria border towns, Spanish and Catalan in Barcelona, and I’m sure I’ve seen sth on switching between Taiwanese and Mandarin in Taiwan etc. This research wasn’t directly related to L2 learning/acquisition – it dealt with preexisting communities with relatively fixed norms. But I see this as part of the same phenomenon – if a language learner becomes (or tries to become!) a part of one of these speech communities and is unaware of what’s happening around them, it can be a shock as well as detrimental to their efforts in mastering the lang in question. And, of course, your language textbook won’t tell you this stuff. The made up dialogues you practice in the language classroom all show both natives and learners happily conversing with no sign of conflict over which language to speak! It’s as if globalization and the assumptions that often go along with communicating internationally don’t exist!

        To go back what I said about early research – scholars used the acronym SPEAKING as a point of departure.

        And this figured prominently in the early research on language choice – in my earlier post I linked to the book by Gumperz with the paper by Heller on Language Choice in Montreal – classic and very interesting paper. Later work looked at language choice as part of the social construction of identity/ethnicity etc. The idea is that choosing a language is making a meaningful statement – often a political one – as in supposedly bilingual Canada. Languages have social values – see Lambert’s early work on the “matched guise test” that showed how attitudes can differ towards the same speaker when speaking a diff language. Native speakers of English probably never think of it – but in many countries being able to speak good English accords you a certain social status. It also probably means you belong to a more privileged social group. Like in Hong Kong (where I’ve lived for 15 years), there are 2 school systems – one that teaches in English and one that teaches in Chinese (Cantonese). Are they equal? No way! In order to get into university – where most instruction is in English – you obviously need to graduate from the former. Although HK has an image of being bilingual in English and Cantonese, it’s really not the case. Being able to speak English is highly correlated with having a university education. Also, of course, HK’s colonial past (similar to India) meant that it was advantageous to speak the language of the colonizers. Plenty of ppl who don’t speak a word of English in HK! Any coincidence they’re mostly the poor folks? I don’t think so.

        Maybe this is getting a bit off topic with respect to Mandarin. But not completely. Although there’s no real preexisting bilingual community in China as in HK, there’s still a (partly) mythical one – an “international” community where educated and “modern” ppl are believed to all communicate in English. So, speaking English is highly symbolic in many societies and is evaluated positively – even in places where the chances of practicing one’s English on some “foreigner” are about zero! Ever seen signs in English in remote parts of China where no English speaker will ever be likely to go? What’s the English doing there?

        How about “efficiency”? I think that’s sth that got neglected in early work which concentrated mostly on the power/solidarity continuum – e.g. sometimes Cantonese speakers in HK speak English, or codeswitch, when talking to their boss, but they’d be less likely to do that with their colleagues at lunchtime.

        Efficiency’s obviously important. But just how some research seems to go overboard with seeing everything as about ideology and political power struggles, rather than personal ones (I sometimes do this!), I think that efficiency is only part of the picture. Looking at your waiter example – where you think the waiter is violating the norm. But, how about from the waiter’s perspective? Is he just trying to be an “A-hole”? I think not. He surely thinks he’s doing sth “natural”. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not a “power struggle” for him. It could be just the assumed “proper” way to look modern and “international”. See, everybody! In China we all speak English! (dream on!) There are surely “domains” where English is seen as the best choice – although it may not be the most efficient. I think we can all come up with similar anecdotes from our personal experience where sb who insisted on speaking (lousy) English to us when our own Chinese (or whatever) skills were well beyond theirs. Were they just trying to be a pain? Or were they perhaps operating with a different set of assumptions?

        Anyway, a great topic. It’s sth that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. So, whether we look at the academic side or the practical problem of how language learners can deal with situations like this without losing their cool, getting frustrated and just giving up study of the “offending” language, discussions such as these are certainly helpful.

        Brian King

  4. Very interesting. I agree with most of your observations.

    Here’s an interesting case to think about. I’m a native speaker of Dutch and I speak English fairly fluently. I’m studying Mandarin in Taiwan at the moment, and I met a guy here who is a native speaker of Canadian English. I suppose your theory would predict that we would speak English together, right? But we speak only Mandarin together. Admittedly, his Mandarin is probably as good as my English, but still. I suppose this is sacrificing efficiency for the sake of learning.

    • If his Mandarin is really as good as your English, then there’s no sacrifice of efficiency.

      If the two are equal, then I’d say it’s your intrinsic motivations (to improve your Chinese in Taiwan) tipping the scale in the favor of Mandarin.

  5. I’m curious about what role “willingness to communicate” plays in these language encounters.

    I don’t have any personal examples from Chinese, but as a learner of Korean when I express interest in practicing with native speakers, depending on their level of fluency in English and my comfort in using Korean with them, we’ll both start off in Korean, but as I’ll gradually introduce more and more English into the conversation until I’m speaking entirely in English and they’re still using Korean.

    It also tends to work the opposite way when a Korean wants practice their English with me as well. There’s a third situation where certain people will speak to me only in Korean, even though we’ve never arranged spoken of any kind of language exchange and I almost always reply to them in English.

    Do you think that kind of situation best be explained by wanting to communicate efficiently or by some fear of making mistakes in a foreign language?

    • The situation where two parties communicate using different languages is a really interesting one. It seems like most people prefer to stick to one language. The whole “language power struggle” sort of assumes this case.

  6. You somewhat glossed over the place aspect of the whole equation. In case 6, though things are probably going to end up developing into a German dialogue, that will occur almost immediately in Germany, while it will probably take moderately longer if the two meet in France and much longer if they meet in China or Japan. You did cover specific settings that affect the result.

    I can attest to the battle of wills. I generally gave up with people whose English was obviously quite good, opting to practice with people who had less English skill. While I was studying in China a lot of Chinese practice came from non-English speaking staff at the university (laundry room ayi, desk girls), but some of my best practice was with Japanese and Korean students who did not speak English or spoke it poorly, similar to your #6. That is, until I met a very nice Chinese girl. 😛

    • Yes, you’re right. This came up in the talk at Xindanwei, but location definitely plays a huge role. And it’s not only that there is a “default language” for a location, but also the culture of the location.

      For example, the Chinese encourage their children to speak to foreigners in English. Meanwhile, many Americans have a “if you come to the USA, you better speak English” attitude.

      Obviously I’ve been following the language power struggle situation in China much more closely. It seems to have certain features that intensify the conflict.

  7. Wow. You wrote A TON on this.
    Good thing hardly anyone speaks English in SH except the girls at Sbux/Wagas. And I don’t really wanna know what the Chinese is for Bolognese Chicken on Fettucini…

    But when you get a GF who, after 5 months of Chinese, wants to practice English, you gotta end it. Once it stops being educational, its over, right?

    • I certainly did write a ton… and I barely scratched the surface. It’s a complex issue!

      As for the girlfriend issue, it all depends on priorities, right? Is your girlfriend a language partner first and love interest second? Or vice versa?

    • Wow. Your GF comment is so messed up. What a terrible thing to say.

  8. Great post!! I feel so identified. I especially liked the idea that most foreigners are awared of this battle, while Chinese aren´t. They just think most foreigners don´t speak Chinese and rule dictates they should speak English. This is especially true with people who don´t know you.

    In China, the case is quite extreme even when foreigners are non English-native speakers (which is my case). Chinese people just think that every Westerner should speak English. My trick to win this language battle was to say that I was from Spain and inmediately ask in Chinese if they spoke Spanish. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn´t: it´s quite difficult to change language expectations.

  9. At this point, I notice the language struggle — let’s call it a “crisis of confidence” — mostly with waiters, and in some cases it’s just a result of restaurant policy. (I once heard the American manager of a Tex-Mex place in Beijing bawl out a couple of waiters who were chatting to each other in Chinese. “We speak English here,” he said. I never went back there again.) Other times, as you note, it’s just reflexive: I used to get slightly pissy when I’d order a coffee in Chinese and have the barista confirm it with me in English, but it seems silly to perceive it as any kind of intentional slight.

    Mostly it’s just a matter of taking the path of least resistance. I don’t feel very strongly about which language I use one way or the other: I can do more in English, but in most contexts I can get more across in Chinese. Then again, some of my Chinese friends have got better spoken English than I have Chinese, so we tend to go with English. Then again, Li and I will often do the Han Solo/Chewbacca thing: she’ll speak in Chinese and I’ll answer in English. It works pretty well, except for when it doesn’t, in which case we’ll just switch languages and try again.

    • Brendan,

      You remind of a point that came up in my talk which didn’t make its way into this blog post. It feels like there’s a “Chinese practice gauge.” When you’re getting lots of practice (your gauge is full), you’re much more tolerant, and less likely to engage in the struggle. When your gauge is empty, however (especially when you first come to China), you start taking everything personally and confronting the offenders.

  10. Really enjoyed reading this one. Thanks for writing/posting it. I lived in Japan for 9 years – small country side towns 90% of my time there. Busted my butt learning Japanese – I find patience and a smile seem to go a long way. Your break down is interesting and I liked the description – With our every utterance, every ill-chosen article, every mispronounced “th,” every inaccurate tone, every rogue particle 了 serves as evidence. The rogue particle 了 – I have been in Taiwan for about 1.5 years -I have very basic survivor Chinese skills – I better polish up sooner or later, I think the universe already has enough rogue particles out there.

  11. Glad to see that Jibril and Brendan have already brought up the idea of bilingual dialogue. For a long time, I simply assumed that this wasn’t a feasible way to hold a conversation. I tend to experience a degree of mental inertia and awkwardness when switching my speech from one language to another, and naturally I assumed that speaking one language and hearing another would be even harder to endure.

    I now know that this is not the case. For the last couple of months, my wife and I have been mainly speaking to each other in our native languages (mine English, hers Chinese), and it works very well. Most of the time, I’m barely even conscious of the difference. The only time I tend to stumble is when she asks what day of the week it is (今天星期几?), because in Chinese this question expects a numerical answer.

    Most interesting of all, in Case 4 of John’s examples (where both speakers have basic competency in the other’s native language but are still keen to practise and learn), an argument can be made on the basis of Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis that this arrangement is actually the most beneficial for both of them. I believe, as Krashen does, that we acquire language mainly through receiving input (hence, we learn to speak by hearing, and we learn to write by reading). In terms of learning, the two people are losing very little by speaking their native languages (instead of L2), but are both gaining enormously from the contextualized, comprehensible L2 input which they are receiving.

    (It was on my mind to blog about this topic, actually. Thanks for the soapbox!)

    • I certainly do gain from the amount of L2 input that I get, but if I’m to be honest with myself I guess I’d have to admit that my spoken Chinese is by far the weakest component of my language ability, and that if I did actually make myself speak Chinese even in conversations with Li, I’d probably have a bit more on the ball.

      I haven’t read Krashen, but I keep seeing his name coming up, so I’ll have to check him out. Does he have a definition of language acquisition? There’s going to be a certain amount of disparity between input comprehension and output comprehensibility no matter what, I guess, but the size of that disparity is going to be affected by the amount of output practice the student gets, rather than the amount of input. At least in my experience.

      • His definition of language acquisition is interesting in that it contrasts “acquired” language with “learned” language, the latter being the conscious awareness of language structures.

        I think you’re right, practice speaking is still necessary, especially for improving pronunciation and fluency. But to what extent it is necessary for things like word choice, I’m not at all sure.

  12. I thought about this more after we talked recently and thought of another variable (in my life here)

    All my local friends with whom there is little or no power struggle and they just speak Chinese to me regardless are ones that I met through a genuine common factor. In bands together, fans of a band and met at a YYT gig, in a kung fu class and at a similar ability. We are both accepted members of a tight community based on an identity which is not nationality.

    The people with whom I had struggles of various types were those with whom I was thrown together with and had very little in common with – like, if I’d have met them at home and they were English, I’d no way have hung out with them. If you see what I mean.

    I don’t know if that’s a useful point or not.

  13. The only solution I found in order to practice my Chinese, when I’m in China, is simply to tell people adressing me in English : “我不说英文,我只说法文” (I don’t speak English, I speak French (which is my mother tongue)).

    Even if I’m really fluent in English, this is the only way, or at least the fastest and shortest way, to force people talking to me in Chinese. I don’t do that all the time, but when I want to practice, that’s really the only way, sorry if the other guys want to practice their English with me 😉

    When I meet Chinese people here in Switzerland on the other hand, if they address to me in English I reply in English and stick to it, except if I feel their English is so poor that they’d really appreciate if I spoke to them in Chinese … Which happens most of the time : after they spoke two sentences in English, if and only if their English is way too poor and I feel they’re feeling uncomfortable about it, I simply inject a couple of sentences in Chinese and we usually go on in Chinese, and I feel most of the time they’re relieved. But yeah, if their English is pretty good and I feel they want to practice, I speak to them in English with pleasure (I also have to improve my English after all !), so I expect the same when I’m in China … Which doesn’t happen very often I’m sorry to say 😉

    Just my 0.14 RMB

    • Elephunk Says: May 18, 2010 at 4:27 pm

      hehe, i tried that – expcept I don’t speak french at all – got a bit awkward when she asked me to teach her a few simple french phrases, though at least she asked me to do so in Chinese.

  14. I’ve always been a fan of efficiency, so I’ve always followed this rule. It’s all about being able to communicate effectively. Whenever I do encounter the battle of wills, I usually just let them win. It’s easy to get frustrated, though. I just tell myself I don’t need to practice my language skills at every opportunity.

  15. A little bit off-topic here but along the same lines of people’s varying expectations of the language ability of foreigners.

    One of the most frustrating things I have ever encountered is when I am with a Taiwanese friend and I ask a waiter/waitress/服務員 a question (in Chinese) – the person doesn’t even look at me – and then replies to my friend, and not me!

    I often think that it’s the hordes of foreigners who aren’t learning Chinese/have no will to learn Chinese that are giving the lot of us a bad rep. People see that you’re white and immediately think “1. English teacher, 2. Can’t speak Chinese, 3. A chance to practice English”

    • I think it also depends on where you are. What you’re describing used to happen all the time in Harbin when I was living there — a few years ago, and I wonder if the influx of language students has changed things over the past few years — and it used to drive me absolutely bugshit. Then I moved to Beijing, where people are mostly not surprised or impressed by sinoglot gringos, and it hasn’t really been an issue since.

    • Next time, ask your friend to pretend he can’t speak Chinese and see what happens 😉 It’s hilarious.

    • “One of the most frustrating things I have ever encountered is when I am with a Taiwanese friend and I ask a waiter/waitress/服務員 a question (in Chinese) – the person doesn’t even look at me – and then replies to my friend, and not me!”

      Get used to it, become a regular, or get to know your servers. Better yet, don’t go alone with a female if you are male, or alone with a male if you are female. If you’re with a group they won’t necessarily know who to look to when they decide not to listen to you or attempt to communicate with you. Going alone as the bf/husbands/gf/wife (whether you are actually any of those things or not)is also asking to get avoided.

      There was a blogger in Taiwan who wrote a long post about this a while ago but I can never find it. It was one of the primary reasons he decided to not live in Taiwan or raise his family there.

      • Taiwan can be kind of extreme that way. Still, I’ve found that the better your accent is and the more assertive you are, the less it happens.

        I’m sure it’s been a longtime since that’s happened, but if I asked a waiter something and they started giving the answer to someone else, I’d interrupt them and say it was me that asked them. It pretty much always works quickly and with minimal disruption to the dining experience. However, there is one odd thing that’s been happening more and more often recently. Certain wanna-be trendy internationalized restaurants are making separate English and Chinese versions of their menus and giving white people the English ones.

  16. Andrew Corrigan Says: May 18, 2010 at 8:02 pm


    I think this whole issue of efficiency is an idealization which is really secondary to the overwhelming factor of Chinese racism towards everyone who doesn’t look Chinese. From my experience:

    1. People who look Chinese get spoken to in Chinese. When I speak to Americans of Chinese descent, they simply don’t go through what us foreigners (a completely racial notion) go through, most Chinese people are willing to speak Chinese to Americans of Chinese descent, and have a very large tolerance for their poor Chinese. Furthermore, I have colleagues who are Korean who regularly get spoken Chinese to by other colleagues who cannot maintain half a sentence in Chinese before reverting to English with me.

    2. An overwhelming majority of Chinese people speak Chinese as little as possible to foreigners. That includes people whose English is bad. Yes, one can speak to elderly people with bad English, but in my experience that person will blurt out English as much as possible, and immediately switch to speaking to the Chinese-looking person standing next to us. Even if one understands and speaks fluently, a huge portion of Chinese people apparently have a mental block that prevents them from truly accepting a foreigner speaking ‘their’ language.

    3. If the “Language Power Struggle” had occurred in the US, or most Western countries, in an English speaking context, regardless of abilities the native English speaker would not insist on speaking in Chinese to the native Chinese speaker, simply because this type of racism is significantly less prevalent in Western culture. It’s rude, and excludes people based on race, and people are actually aware of this.

    • Andrew Corrigan Says: May 18, 2010 at 8:17 pm

      You note the exception of people who are of the Chinese teaching profession. People of that profession have also been huge exceptions to everything I’ve written above (even outside the classroom), and are pretty much the only reason I personally have any degree of fluency.

    • I was having tea with a bunch of friends and friends of friends in Taiwan, when one girl insisted on speaking English to me. Are you not Taiwanese? I asked politely, acting curious. Yes, she was Taiwanese, but it just felt so strange to her to speak Chinese to a foreign face, she explained. I gave her a weird look, and she spoke Chinese to me after that.

    • It is racist, I agree. But this is also a country that openly states at a government level that it does not have an active immigration and integration program (PRC Foreign Affairs Press conference, August, 2005. And so these lines in the sand of what defines racism is not taught to Chinese people and thus they act in complete ignorance thinking they’re actually being polite. It’s a tough one for us foreigners to swallow because it goes against everything we’ve been raised to believe about not judging based on colour and not treating others differently. My personal struggle is at what point do we intervene to teach people this is wrong behaviour to judge based on colour. In the end, I end up looking like an ungrateful stiff if I verbally or non-verbally chastise someone for speaking English to me because i’m white, regardless of my first language. So I generally don’t. But I will tell you a wonderful little secret weapon to combat this behavior if the situation borders on extreme racism… I pull out the Japan card and ask them how they’d like it if I were to speak to them only in Japanese because they look Japanese. Then they get it.

      • But one more thing on this that I think is very important to say is the issue of intentions. Racism with bad intentions towards others or a negative view of others should be judged in a different way. Non-Asians may have been racially profiled when a Chinese person singles them out as someone who “needs” or “should” be spoken to in English, but there are NO malicious or evil intentions behind it. (in fact , in my many years of living in China, i don’t think i’ve ever been maliciously targeted for any reason by someone Chinese). There are polite ways to bring attention tomthe matter (if it’s even a battle that should be actively fought – you be the judge)… But Chinese society is becoming more open and this in time may too change. I do have to say thought that I find it ironic that I hear foreigners, who have lived long-term in China for many years, complain about the few Chinese who immigrate to but don’t integrate into the foreigners’ countries; yet often these same foreigners don’t speak Chinese. So where might part of the root of the “he/she won’t speak to me in Chinese” problem lie?

  17. kastner Says: May 18, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Great post. Never met Case 6, so I can’t tell but the else cases are very true.

  18. Great stuff!

    I find a good test of a persons character is to test them with a third party.

    Person 1: Excellent Chinese, Excellent English
    Person 2 (You): Decent Chinese, Excellent English
    Person 3: Excellent Chinese, No English

    In this case the only way to communicate will all three parties is with Chinese. I find in these cases the conversation should switch to Chinese simply out of politeness. If it doesn’t then perhaps you are in the middle of a major language power struggle.

    你要通过语言交朋友,不要通过朋友学语言。 I said this once when an English learner was insisting on speaking English despite the negative impact it was having on communication. What is your goal here? Friends or language?

    Thanks a lot John, been looking forward to this for a while now!

  19. Yeah this post is awesome.

    My memories of Shanghai are much like your dialog. Here in Chengdu things are different. The level of English is poorer, so that helps. Also English isn’t trendy here like it is in SH. (That’s another socioeconomic factor.) I notice that people who speak English well in Chengdu seem less inclined to use it. I’m friends with a musician who speaks great English. Sometimes he starts a conversation “英文还是中文?” Like for him speaking English is a drag.

    There’s another language power struggle in China. Maybe some of your blog readers can relate to it. It goes something like this: You’re sitting at a dinner table with your Chengdunese (Xi’anese, Shenyangese, Kunmingese) friends. Someone says something funny in the local dialect. Immediately everyone breaks into dialect. You sit there dumb, unable to contribute… waiting for a chance to draw the conversation back into Standard Mandarin.

    That post on marital communication is downright scary. My wife and I are in the process of migrating our relationship to Chinese. It’s hard, one false start after another. Consciously code-switching, i.e. me using English when I would otherwise make errors in Chinese, seems to help.

    • You should try living in Southern Taiwan, where Taiwanese is in widespread use. People continually switch between ‘台語’ and ‘國語’ and jokes etc are a lot of the time spoken in Taiwanese.
      Can be a bit disheartening to spend so long learning Chinese and then to be excluded so easily.

  20. Great topic. We have all encountered this.

    As I sold my mother tongue as a way to make rent while in Taiwan and China learning Chinese, I was quite reluctant to “give away” English. I was on a mission to learn Chinese. Just like in the example dialogue, I figured if they wanted to “learn English” then go to an English speaking country. I made some serious sacrifices to acquire Chinese.

    I came up with a few strategies. First of all, if the person speaking to me was someone that i might want to have an ongoing connection with, and IF their English was better than my Chinese. I would honor their hard work by speaking English.

    If it was not as good, or it was a causal connection I would do one of two things.
    1) purposefully misunderstand their English so they would get embarrassed and switch to Chinese. I know, kind of mean, but so it goes.
    2) pretend I was NOT an English speaker. This would take some time and effort as most Chinese can not believe a blue eyed white boy could be anything other than an English speaker. I’d go on about how I was from France and we don’t like to speak English there. Usually they would give up and switch to English. Unless they could speak French. In which case I was totally busted. Eventually I pretended I was from Poland or the Czech Republic as their was very little chance of them knowing those languages.

    • I’ve always wanted to try out the ‘I don’t understand English’ one.

      I used to have a classmate who was from Paraguay, and over here in Taiwan learning Chinese. She really didn’t know any English, but the people here couldn’t believe it.

      Most people here seem to think ALL foreigners can speak English, regardless of skin colour.

  21. Harland Says: May 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Pretend you’re Russian. Say, “I am Russian, Russian people don’t speak English.”

    Alternatively, say, “I am Russian minority people from Harbin.” Watch brains explode.

  22. Well, this RARELY happens with me, and when it does a finger snap and an annoyed 你痛快点行不行 does the trick. I only really do that if I’m REALLY not in the mood to talk to anyone though.

    Part of setting the tone for any given interaction is who speaks first, and how quickly, I think. I, like all of us, have had to learn Mandarin from the ground up, but one of the things I’ve noticed since I mastered the 诶 (ei) as a conversation starter and greeting is that the incidence of people trying to skeksis my English essence (Dark Crystal, anyone?) has gone way, way down. Like you say, there are certain presumptions that we make about a person’s ability to speak a language, even before they open their mouths and then in the first few sentences they speak. Over/under/below the conscious judgments I think there are certain cues that can turn an emotional “native”/”non-“/”other” switch in most people’s heads.

    I know that if someone comes up to me and says “heydude” really fast, then I tend to respond in my informal plains register, but if I get a “Hellosir!” I have to force myself out of a defensive state. A “干吗去了” has almost a physical calming effect, while a crisp, perfectly enunciated “你好” almost makes me cringe. They aren’t conscious reactions, they’re just emotional states that I’ve learned to associate with the attitude and type of people who give them.

    When I hesitate or say things like 您好 and 打扰一下 to open a conversation, people are stiffer with me, at least for the first few seconds. 诶+pointed question+nonthreatening body language seems to be a winner for starting a friendly conversation, and I haven’t had one instance that’s stuck in memory when I’ve used that as an opener that someone turned Skeksis on me. Apparently foreigners don’t grunt much.

  23. light487 Says: May 20, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Interesting study with some good groundwork. I encountered this occasionally in my travels. I’d say I fall into Group 3 or 4 for the most part.. so I was generally feeling the “their English is better than my Chinese” weight quite a lot.. but I spent most of my time with younger people who were happy to help me with my learning. It was the gong-ren in the fast-food chains and places like that who refused to understand my Chinese regardless of whether it was being said correctly or not.

    Just about everyone else, young and old, did not have any problems nor struggled to control the language side of the conversation. If they asked a question in Chinese, I tried to answer in Chinese.. if they switched to English, I happily switched to English.. except for those times when it is a simple “yes” or “no” answer.. or something like that..

    I also used your qing-jiang-pu-tong-hua t-shirt to great effect again.. hehe.. do you still have those shirts available? Mine is starting to get a bit old with stains that won’t come out in the wash 🙂

    This discussion also gave me some fore-knowledge for when I start to teach English in China.. it may be wise to feign ignorance of the Chinese language, to a certain extent, so that the perception of the students I am teaching is that it won’t be efficient to use Chinese to talk to me instead of the English I will be wanting to them to be using in class etc.

  24. Wow John, over 40 comments to this blog post. You really know how to choose a hot topic! Here are my two cents:

    1. Research in Language Choice: It’s clearly not my field of expertise, but do take a look at research on heritage speakers, for example UCLA’s Heritage Language Journal. As I read through these blog comments, it reminded me a lot of language choice by heritage speakers.

    Heritage speakers often suffer through intense pressure from relatives and academic folk who criticize their speaking. There is such a stigma that I have even met, for example, with Mexican professionals who have said, “We would prefer to speak English with a gringo than be told what to do by some ‘pocho’ from Texas in Spanish.”

    Anyway, there has been a fair amount of research on language choice among heritage speakers.

    1. Chinese perception of Use of English: There is something interesting about Chinese adoption of Putonghua as a lingua franca, despite all of the regional dialects and local languages. As related to use of English, it’s almost as if people accept their local language for personal interactions and Putonghua for official interactions. From there it is a small leap to English for professional interactions. Recently when in Beijing I visited a multinational engineering company, German owned even, but the official language at work was English. It was amazing to see rooms full of Chinese engineers, most who had never been out of China, all using English to talk to each other at work. It certainly strengthened my understanding of the way English was perceived as a professional tool, no different in some ways from switching among c++, php, html, or java.

    2. Our skewed View: My guess is that the type of person who is interested in this blog represents a minority. No doubt, most of the world probably confronts mono-lingual English speakers who assume and demand English for all communication. Our frustration with people who want to speak English with us is most likely counterbalanced with a frustrated world that feels obligated to speak English, even when they feel inadequate in doing so.

    3. John asked if my experience in Latin America (with Spanish and Portuguese) was similar to his in China with Chinese. The short answer is no, not really. Indeed I have run across people who insist on practicing English with me, and from a professional end English is everywhere, but the aggressive power struggle seems less in Latin America. My guess as to why… well, first I believe that Latin Americans think that English speakers who do not speak Spanish are just unmotivated or lazy, people who could learn it if they really wanted to. On the other hand, Chinese think of their language as “more difficult”. Deep down they must think that it’s easier for them to learn English than it is for ‘us’ to learn Chinese. Add that to the items mentioned by all of these blog comments, and we see that despite John’s cool proficiency charts, language proficiency is only part of choosing which language is used.

    So, my two cents became four, but hey, I’m an academic guy, it’s hard to be brief.

  25. Jonathan Says: May 21, 2010 at 2:30 am

    I did take it personally at first that people would not speak to me in Chinese and always wanted to speak in English. But I quickly figured out that unless their English was fairly fluent (which was not the case where I was living), I could easily ratchet up the conversation to a point where their English faltered and the conversation would slip into Chinese. Once I got over feeling like a tool whose sole purpose was to dole out free English lessons, I enjoyed my time in China much more.

  26. John is right, when teaching Chinese teaching almost exclusively in Chinese, with the occasional english pointer when someone is really lost at sea, is the best method. When your starting out, paying a tutor to listen to your horrible chinese is critical (if your fresh off the boat you’ll be murdered on the street).

    The biggest problem is that most Chinese teachers are also english students, who often think that teaching someone with basic chinese is too hard and that chatting away in english for an hour for money is great!

  27. To everyone, even myself: If Chinese people want to practice their English, then let them practice! Give, teach, don’t only see what you can take. If you help others, you also end up helping yourself. If you are making a special effort to only hangout with and make friends with Chinese people who can’t speak English, aren’t you using them just like you feel Chinese people are using you, but even worse? When you go back to America and see Chinese people, do you not speak to them in Chinese? Do you force yourself to speak English to them? Is there some rule that you can’t speak Chinese to them in America and some rule that Chinese people can’t speak English to you in China? Is the “when in Rome” principle that strong? Put yourself in their shoes, and you can still practice your Chinese. No one is forcing you to speak English to them (practicing speaking is more important than practicing listening because you can listen to Chinese all around you), and how can it hurt you if they are speaking English?

    I used to feel the same way about the “language power struggle” (I’ll abbreviate LPS) as John does, but now I’m quite different. I would get angry when Chinese coworkers would continue speaking to me in English while I was trying my best to speak Chinese. I would almost feel that Chinese was a secret code language that foreigners weren’t allowed to know (like the discovery of silk over a thousand years ago in China), and that the Chinese were going to use that code language advantage as a way to pass up English speaking countries economically. Also, I didn’t look at it as my coworkers wanting to use me, but a way to show off their education in front of me, and have a language competition with me.

    Now, I don’t get angry by the LPS because getting angry about that is just silly if you think about it. The competition is friendly, not fierce, and is one of the biggest fuels that keeps my fire burning to study Chinese. If the Chinese weren’t so obsessed with learning English and I wasn’t having these LPSs with them, I wouldn’t be hitting the books so hard at night, and listening to so many chinesepod lessons on my ipod on the way to work. Studying Chinese just wouldn’t be as fun.

    I thought I was obsessed with the LPS before but John, you really do care about this LPS, even more than me! I cared about it a lot a few months ago with my Chinese coworkers, feeling like our friendship was on the line because we were using each other; on the other hand, I didn’t care much about the LPS with strangers I meet in public. Its not like they are insulting me or anything. He can speak English, I can speak Chinese, so what. Is it really that awkward to speak two different languages to each other at the same time? If so, get over it (not addressing to John, but to everyone). I can listen to Chinese people speak Chinese to each other, listen to the radio, listen to Chinesepod, watch Chinese TV, etc. I don’t need to rely on Chinese people speaking Chinese to me; People speaking English to me at work isn’t going to be the end of my listening comprehension skills.

    John, I think us Americans care about the LPS so much because one, (the smallest reason), we are generally more competitive, two, we only have English as a language so we really want to learn another one (to be more cultured, to make life more interesting), three, English is the international language so everyone can understand us and we want a language to speak that others can’t understand (we want to be cool and have a code language and look smart too), and four, in the USA, we are very accustomed to and therefore expect everyone to speak English, so when we go to other countries, we feel the pressure to learn their language because that’s how we would have treated them in our country. Also, like you and others have mentioned before, Americans have the “I’m American, speak English to me” attitude, and as my personal example, all the other Americans in my company have that “speak English to me, we’re in an American company darn it!” attitude.

    Also, being an English teacher, I can understand why my students want to speak to me in English. I still speak to them in Chinese outside of class (I don’t care if they know how good (or bad) my Chinese is (what you mentioned before- a teacher shouldn’t reveal his fluency in his students’ language)), but they can speak English to me all they want because after all, I am their English teacher, should I hold that against them? I would do the same thing if I was talking to my Chinese teacher in America. Again, it makes you open your eyes more if you just put yourself in their shoes, and not have such a selfish attitude, but would be wiling to help others (I’m not stating that towards John or anyone on here, but just saying that in general, and not just about this topic, but life in general) – I often tell myself this, almost everyday.

    Also, about the getting used to speaking one language with your partner and then switching to another language, I really do not see how that should affect a relationship. Please, we really shouldn’t let languages affect us in negative ways this much. You speak whatever language you want to your loved one, and let him/her speak whatever language he/she wants – be free for goodness sake! In my opinion, its good to speak both languages so that both people can know each other even better, and practice even more, and get even better, but in no way should anyone be using another, in no way should a switch in languages bring a break up.

    Plus, if you love speaking Chinese, and you are dating a girl who can’t and doesn’t have any interest in speaking Chinese, you relationship would probably be difficult because she wouldn’t know what you were saying to Chinese girls, she would be annoyed of not understanding you, and you couldn’t speak Chinese to her which would be disappointing for you. Therefore, you would be tending to date a Chinese girl, but it doesn’t mean you are using her. You would only be using her if you weren’t attracted to her. If she wants to speak English to you, again put yourself in her shoes, it doesn’t mean she is using you. If you are dating someone for language practice only, without any interest, that’s just ridiculous and you are a loser. If you are wanting both, there’s nothing wrong with that. I can see how American guys fall all over Chinese girls because Chinese is fun to speak, Chinese girls (comparatively, and Shanghai might be a little different) are conservative, they are loyal to their boyfriends, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to speak Chinese with them; plus Chinese girls are just dang gorgeous, and you have to admit it.

    • Lee,

      Wow, you have a lot to say! A few comments…

      First, I feel that the LPS is especially intense for learners of Chinese in China in the Elementary-Intermediate stages (Cases 3-4 above). It has long since ceased to be a major issue for me, but I still study it and care about it because it affects so many learners I’m trying to help.

      Second, “just be nice and put yourself in the other person’s shoes” is great, until it directly conflicts with your goals to learn Chinese. It’s not about being selfish or not, it’s about accomplishing your goals. You will literally never run out of Chinese friends that want to improve their English, so if you find that you’re not improving because you’re not getting enough practice, there comes a point when you need to do something about it.

      Now, obviously, each person’s situation is different. Maybe you’re lucky to have a pretty good situation.

      • ah, very good point! And I think living in Shanghai makes the language power struggle more difficult.

  28. ps, I forgot to mention, can anyone give examples of where they run into these language power struggles? At work, at school, at tea shops, at places where Americans like to hang out like “Big Bamboo”, “Cotton Club” or some bars?

    John, I don’t want to get personal with Chinesepod but I am DYING to know….. do you have language power struggles with Jenny (not in the negative way of you using each other, I mean, do you have problems on which language to chat in)? If so, what do you do? Mon, Wed, Fri. speak English, the other days, Chinese? I ask this in particular because I had them with my coworkers (I think we know how to deal with it now), and your Chinese is excellent, Jenny’s English is excellent, and you two are together all the time. What about with other coworkers at Chinesepod… any LPSs there?

    • Lee,

      All those places are potential locations for power struggles.

      Jenny and I have never had a power struggle because neither of us feel a strong need to practice English or Chinese. She can practice English as much as she wants with dozens of her friends, and I can do the same with Chinese, so neither of us have this pent-up “NEED TO PRACTICE” urgency.

      So we speak both English and Chinese to each other. It’s a mix. Although neither of us can claim native-like fluency yet (and she’s closer than I am!), we’re most similar to Case 2 above.

      • cool, thanks for sharing that. One more question, do you and Jenny speak “Chinglish” where sentences are mixed together in both languages, or where 5 minutes you speak Chinese and 5 minutes you speak English, or, where one person speaks in one language and the other person answers in the other, or, where you speak for hours in one language and then for hours in the other? Thats all the personal questions about you and Chinesepod, really!

  29. I forgot to mention, speak whatever language you want, regardless what languages you speak, regardless what languages the person you are talking to speaks, as long as they can understand you (of course). It doesn’t matter if two people who are both German are speaking Chinese to each other. Therefore, I don’t agree completely with the 6 charts that John made (sorry John, its only my opinion), unless the conversation was urgent, and practice or having fun was no issue whatsoever, then I would agree with the charts about the efficiency. I would guess if two Germans were on their way to a hospital or discussing a huge business deal, they would be speaking German (more urgent or serious matters). Its all psychological and about pride if they say to each other “its weird we are not speaking German”. Actually, I saw a group of Italian guys speaking Chinese to each other in an American restaurant while watching the Olympic games on TV. I guess they were either showing off to the pretty waitresses, or just practicing.

    It doesn’t mean that the two Germans are using each other for practice when speaking Chinese to each other. If they want to practice their weak language, they can. When you were young and went to your friend’s house to see if he was home to go throw a baseball, did his parents say, “You just want to use him to practice your baseball skills”? Yes you needed a baseball partner, but you still enjoy his company.
    When the Germans are speaking Chinese and they don’t know how to say a word in Chinese, they can speak that one word in German. If speaking to a Chinese person, use all Chinese except for the word you don’t know, and speak that word in English, followed by a “how do you say that in Chinese?” This is where 互相帮助 comes in (helping each other) which you can only do when a Chinese person speaks good English. if you are speaking to someone who can’t speak English such as a security guard, you will have to have him wait for you to look up every word you don’t know in a dictionary, and if I were him I would be annoyed. Imagine a Chinese person doing that to you in America. If the person can speak English, they can translate for you the Chinese that you don’t know.
    One last tip, that john has mentioned before and that I think is the most useful for speaking Chinese. Speak to yourself in Chinese or whatever language you want to improve in. When getting up in the morning, use Chinese to think to yourself what you need to do that morning. Everyone speaks to themselves naturally in their native language, so make a constant effort to speak to yourself in the “L2”. I think its not about the books that you buy that determines how good your Chinese is, and not even about how much you study those books, its about the things that are more difficult, like speaking to yourself in Chinese, speaking to Chinese people who’s English is better than yours in Chinese, that will really help you improve your Chinese, and that will be the biggest stumbling blocks from you being an excellent Chinese speaker.

  30. Henning Says: May 23, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    I am late here, but this is a fascinating topic…

    Two additions to your theory:

    a) situation
    Efficiency is conditional to conversation topic.

    Example: We had some trouble with the Schengen visa for my mother in law who wants to visit us next week. During my last CPod Guided session my wife called to discuss the most recent developments at the embassy. Afterwards my Pracice teacher Shen Yajin (who waited patiently at the Skype line) asked me why we spoke German and not Chinese. Wasn’t that a perfect opportunity to practice some more advanced Chinese?
    Well, yes, good question. But the situation didn’t allow that with respect to the law of efficiency.

    The problem: When I converse in Chinese I tend to repeat the same everyday stuff over and over, while more advanced stuff never leaves German.

    b) Throw in more persons
    The “law of efficiency” gets ambiguous if you have more than two persons, e.g. two Chinese natives and a German. The least common denominator is usually English – and politeness would also demand to stay in that language. But there is a strong force to break this rule and leave the non-native on the sidelines.

    Example: Two years ago I visited a Chinese research group and of course at the lunch table the language of choice was English. But because many participants were unconfortable with that they started side-conversations in Chinese.
    In this situation it is really helpful to be able to at least get the gist of what is going on because it provides handles to re-enter the fray.

  31. John, fantastic stuff. I’m glad someone has finally wrote about this in detail.

    I’m going to a link to this in the newsletters we send out to new teachers on learning Mandarin.

  32. This was a pretty cool blog that I mostly agree on. The biggest power struggle I have is with China Mobile’s service line which, for whatever reason only answers in English on my mobile phone these days. I’m not sure if I picked English some day years ago, or if I’ve been given this convenient service due to my foreign passport I used to register my phone number.

    Anyway, even if native Chinese speakers talk to them in Chinese, those service people reply in English, even if you say you don’t understand…even if you really don’t understand! – and they’re not helpful in telling how to change the service to Chinese. They must have managers breathing down their necks yelling at them if they speak Chinese…

    I think it’s a particularly bizzare service attitude and application of the language battle.

  33. Zackorsky Says: May 25, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Excellent post. I totally agree, John. Finding at least a few friends who have negligible English speaking ability is the best way to go. I really avoid the power struggle game. Efficiency should take it’s course. But in any situation if someone is pushing me too hard for English, even when their English is better than my Chinese, I usually just avoid that person.

  34. This is a fantastic topic that I personally have thought a lot about, and like others here, really want to see some good research on it. A few points, but first background.

    I live in Japan and have had language battles like this many times, almost always with hotel employees or other service industry employees. My Japanese ability is near-native or native-like (but it wasn’t always that way during certain battles) and it would infuriate me when I’d approach a hotel desk attendant and speak Japanese, only to have that person speak English to me, and keep on doing so. In one situation, I finally just gave up and spoke English until the end of the exchange, when the girl said, “Here is your receiPPt” !?slightly hanging her head in uncertainty. Needless to say, I was irked and felt huffily confident I wouldn’t have made a similar mistake in Japanese.

    So, I think it’s a good ethical point to say that one should respond in the language originally offered by the other person, until that communication (language) breaks down at one point or another. In keeping with that, I always speak English with anyone who comes up to me to ask or say something in English, because it’s obvious they want to speak English (and as an English teacher, it’s fun to teach and also interesting to see what they know or how they’re applying things.) I’d also like to add that purposefully misunderstanding other’s English, etc. to switch to Chinese/Japanese, as some here have suggested is indeed a pretty shabby move, mainly because they take that information into account when evaluating their ability. Japanese people are particularly susceptible to completely doubting all the English they’ve learned when they can’t get something (however trivial) across to a foreigner. Not sure how exactly this plays out in China.

    Further, the relationship between the two speakers should weigh in on the issue. Namely, service-customer relationships should grant power to decide to the customer, except in cases where perfect communication is vital (taxi driver directions, etc), where a combination approach may be best. But an emergency worker, policeman or such should have priority to speak to a foreigner in whatever language they deem best.

    Also, I think that Japan is perhaps a bit of an extreme or odd case. The preconceptions mentioned in this article are fairly strong and take considerable, consistent counter-evidence to adjust them. (Maybe China is similar.) And their emphasis on hospitality leads them to baby foreigners in a way that ultimately amounts to an insult to their intelligence in my opinion. And according to a Japanese friend or two, the Japanese have some reservations about even talking to a foreigner (when the foreigner approaches them in Japanese), because the Japanese person doesn’t speak English! (Not everything about the Japanese approach to foreigners is bad, but they certainly still have pronounced self-other distinctions, on the individual and national levels.) I do live in a rural part of Japan, but by way of contrast, when I was in Beijing, people continuously spoke to me in Chinese even when it was clear that I had run out of Chinese. (And I loved them for it.)

    Lastly, two additional pieces of data. 1) When I was first studying abroad in Japan, another American friend of mine (with approximately similar Japanese level) and I would converse with each other in Japanese as much as possible. It was a great way to practice and learn! But few others did this and another friend of ours (whose Japanese was better) expressed the opinion that it’s just “silly” because English is easier, and eventually we did give up the practice. However, I’m convinced it is definitely not “silly”, (however silly you feel doing it) especially if you’re studying together. 2) In Korea and nearby Kyushu, I met Koreans and ended up speaking Japanese with them, for reasons already explained in the article (my weak Korean, their weak English.) And the lack of direct competition certainly breathes the fun of language learning and connecting with others back into the picture.

    Anyway, great article, John.

  35. When I came to China, my level was essentially zero. My husband is Chinese, and we met in the States. English was always our language of communication.

    I have now gained reasonable fluency in Chinese (to the point I can attend a dinner with 6-10 people and follow and join in the conversation when I have something to say).

    Now we also live with my husband’s sister. Overall, they both have better English than I do.

    As to the interaction, I feel free to use whichever language I feel like using. I think I am more inclined to use English in the home because they understand me and I need to use Chinese when I go outside. At dinner, the conversation is often in English, but sometimes in Chinese. There is not really a way to predict which one will be spoken.

    When my husband and his sister talk alone, they always use Chinese.

    I wonder when we go back to the US if we will use more Chinese in the home because that will be the place where we are able to speak it.

    This means I wonder if the location of the people and the language spoken where the people are would have some impact on the language choice.

    I have 3 good Chinese friends. The two I met before I learned Chinese continue to just talk with me in English. We will rarely use Chinese with each other and it seems strange when we do.

    The other friend was once my Chinese teacher. She now almost always insists on speaking English with me. Her English is slightly better than mine, but sometimes I feel annoyed that she wont speak Chinese anymore. I should also say that when she was my teacher, she did not use English with me. It was only after we started to spend time together socially when we started to use more English.

    When I was in the US, I was friends with the girlfriend of one of my students. We set up a language exchange where she would teach me Chinese and we would have English conversation for about one hour per language. The reality was that most of the time during the lesson we were using English. It didn’t matter that much though. Oddly enough, when she and I were alone together or if we went out on a double date, we would often speak to each other in Japanese. Her English was the stronger of the language choices, but to for a chance to practice Japanese and to put us on equal linguistic footing, we enjoyed using Japanese. In addition, it meant we could talk about what we wanted to without my husband or her boyfriend understanding.

    I have found that talking to my ayi is the best way for me to learn and practice Chinese. She can’t speak but a few isolated words in English. She surprised me with apple the other day. For 12 RMB per hour, I have a person who not only cleans and cooks for me but also enjoys talking with me. She has worked for us for 5 years. She was always incredibly willing to talk at me when I understood nothing she said. I feel lucky to have met such a person.

    I agree with John that finding a person who has worse language than you do is a good way to improve your Chinese.

    I also advise my Chinese students who want to make friends with foreigners to improve their English to try speaking to the foreigner in Chinese first. Establish the relationship in Chinese, become friends, and at some point there will be an opportunity to use English. As a foreigner, I get so tired of feeling that people only want to be friends with me so they can speak English, so if I Chinese person is willing to speak to me in Chinese, I may feel I want to know this person because they may truly want to get to know me as a person and not just exploit my English. However, chances are the person’s English will be better than mine, and if the person is my friend there will be times where there will be a group situation where more of the people are English speakers and the conversation will be in English. And then a switch could be made once I feel the person is my friend. I point out that the goal of making friends with foreigners should not only be to practice language but to also learn about the culture and they can do that in either Chinese or English. I wonder if others also give this advice of if they would agree with it?

    I have also become friendly with former students. If my husband is present, the conversations now often take place in Chinese. If it is just me with the student, we will still use English. So sometimes I think the number of Chinese people involved makes a difference as well. Thus, if I am a foreigner in China who wants to practice Chinese, I would suggest not having one to one interaction but an interaction where there are two Chinese people and one English speaking person. Chances are the Chinese speakers will lapse into Chinese and not stick to using English.

  36. mehmet rasim inceoglu Says: November 2, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    I had an Italian classmate back in Beijing, who could speak Itallan, very good French, poor Vietnamese and Intermediate Chinese and close to no English. On the other hand I as a Turk born in Germany Could speak Turkish, German, English and Chinese in an Intermediate level. It was funny for observers from the outside that two western looking people were speaking Chinese for their daily communication.

  37. peter_rabbit Says: January 28, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    60-year-old Italian-American, pale, with a shock of white hair. Was walking the streets of Tianjin recently, a young Chinese woman came up to me and asked in Chinese for directions to an intersection. I explained briefly how to get there, and then, without any visible reaction to my ability to understand/speak Chinese, she asked me a follow-up question, to which I had to reply with the standard 我也不知道. She thanked me and quickly walked away, but I stood there for quite a while, totally transfixed by the exchange.

  38. […] waiter insisted on talking to me in English, even though I initiated in Chinese. It was a classic language power struggle. I pointed to my shirt and asked him to 请讲普通话, which was incredibly awkward for me to do. […]

  39. Very interesting blog. There is no power struggle for me, because I don’t play the game. I refuse to speak a word of English to anyone, and ignore anyone who does. Game over.

  40. This alloyed me too. However those of us teaching English must think about how much shouting and punishment we give out for Chinese kids speaking Chinese to a white face in our classes. I guess that could also be why they have reflex to talk to a white face in English when they grow older. I’m about to head to Beijing so hopefully can find enough people with minimal English to practice, any hints?

  41. This seems to be much more of an issue in Shanghai than in Beijing or most other parts of China…While I was living in Guangzhou (2003-2004) all the locals would always speak to me in Cantonese first, and continue in it as long as I tried to speak back in (poor) Cantonese, but were OK switching to Mandarin if I told them I could speak that better.

    In Beijing (lived here since 2004) the local attitude is pretty much that if you decide to live here, you should learn Chinese. Those who can speak English are happy to use it with tourists or short-term residents, but always complain to me not only about friends who have lived here long-term and can’t communicate in Chinese, but even those who can communicate but don’t speak particularly well.

    It seems to boil down to the Beijingers’ sense of representing the cultural center of China and the seat of power going back to imperial times, the place where kings from Korea, Vietnam, etc. would come to pay homage to the Chinese emperor, with all communication done in classical written Chinese, which was the lingua-franca from Japan to Vietnam for centuries. Even the Manchus all ended up learning Chinese and losing their own language after they conquered China and their elites settled in Beijing.

    Compare this to Shanghai which is essentially a city founded by foreigners about 150 years ago after the Opium war as a treaty port at he mouth of the Yangtze, a place from which to distribute opium throughout China in order to correct Britain’s enormous trade balance at the time. Foreign languages (English, French, later Japanese during occupation) were always the languages of both money and power in Shanghai until the communist takeover. Given this history, as well as Shanghai’s foreign direct investment driven development and positioning as China’s international business and finance center during Jiang Zemin’s tenure, the Shanghainese seem to take greater pride in their ability to speak English and “be international” than they do in speaking Mandarin,which isn’t the local dialect anyways. Would love to hear from any foreign-looking foreigners out there who speak fluent/near-native Shanghainese about their experiences.

  42. Dallin A. Says: August 18, 2011 at 3:33 am

    I was living in Zhengzhou, Henan province with a host family this summer and noticed the exact same thing.

    My host brother and I would usually end up speaking Chinese even though his English was about as good as my Chinese was. I think this was because I was more used to the struggle of communicating and was more comfortable sounding stupid. There was one major exception to the rule, though, and that was when we were with his extended family and wanted to use a “secret language.”

    Also, a technique I employed a few times with people who wouldn’t stop speaking English to me was to purposefully use very hard to understand English and to pretend not to understand what people were saying in English. This was a bit too mean, yes, but it definitely illustrates the idea John is sharing here. I was trying to make the Chinese person’s English level appear lower than it actually was so that it became more and more awkward to use English when our more common language seemed to be Chinese.

    As more of a joke, there was one time that I pretended to be French and not know any English. My two years of high school French can only go so far, though.

  43. so the conclusion from this is that you need to get the chinese level to a certain stage before you can walk around shanghai and practice with random people under 40, because most people in shanghai have a pretty decent level of english. Would you agree?

    • “because most people in shanghai have a pretty decent level of english”

      What?!Heavens no.

      Come to Shanghai, practice Chinese all day long. The locals here don’t use Mandarin very much, though, so their pronunciation is a little wack, Just warning you ;).

  44. Such an interesting topic, I´m actually considering doing my master´s thesis on it (which I have to do this term)!

    From my own experience: I´m an American, born and raised in Germany with near native-English skills, trying to learn Japanese. It´s hard learning Japanese outside of Japan for me without actually studying it as a major. The tandemservice I used only came up with one Japanese woman for me to practice with, whose German is waaay better than my Japanese. So most of the time, we speak German. It helped me practice really basic stuff, but I´m just not getting anywhere with my Japanese (lack of money prevents me from taking classes at private language schools and the classes at the university are too easy).

    I did meet a Japanese girl once who basically spoke no German, and realized that I could improve my Japanese much better by speaking to her; especially because I was forced to speak Japanese and couldn´t chicken out when expressing something seemed to difficult.

    As to speaking your mother tongue with other people: Speaking German with foreigners: no problem. Speaking English with strangers/foreigners: no problem. Switching from German to English with old friends: really weird.

    Some friends have tried to get me to speak English with them so they could practice it, but I just can´t do it. All of a sudden, my English sounds different from when I speak it with family, it just feels unnatural, and my pronunciation sounds horrible in my own ears. Though part of this my be a self-conscious reaction because my German is still better than my English. But when I´m in the U.S. my English sounds really good!

    To the importance of location: My brother and I usually speak German with eachother, but when we flew to the U.S. last month, we automatically switched to English as soon as we got off the plane. We hadn´t planned this. When we sat down to lunch we talked about it and said “I just feels weird to talk in German here” On the trip back there was some code-switching for a while, but now it´s mainly German again, though some English still lingers after that 4-week trip to the States.

  45. A good classic post!

    Since people are still commenting, I’ll add my two cents. This issue has vexed me for a long time. For my background: I studied Chinese in China and Taiwan for about 1.5 years after taking 2 years of college Chinese. During then, and since then, I have all but categorically refused to speak English with Chinese speakers.

    During the first part, things were fairly easy: the schools had a language pledge, and I told Chinese people about this. All of them accepted it and even seemed to manifest fear at translating an occasional Chinese word into English. I am sure if it were not for the language pledges, we’d all be using English. When I studied advanced Chinese later, I didn’t have much of a problem. The occasional person wanted to speak English, but I said I was here as a Chinese student, and they didn’t have many qualms.

    Now that I’m back in the USA, I still maintain something of a no English no code-switching rule where the situation permits it. I still have Chinese friends here, who I talk with regularly. A small number have tried to bona fide power struggle me into English. But in these limited cases, I can usually point out I prefer Chinese (politely!). The friendship goes on undisturbed – after all, they have plenty of Chinese-speaking friends and I would be just one more on top of that.

    I ran into my friend from my China experience (2007-08). He didn’t follow any such Chinese language policy in China or here. When we talked again, he had a difficult time of carrying on basic conversations. My Chinese has substantially improved since then.

    I don’t understand why Chinese speakers would prefer to use English with Americans so strongly, especially when compared with other cultures. Perhaps they don’t understand the feeling of engaging in a silly English/Chinese power struggle with half the people you meet. They also probably don’t understand that the American has chosen to make a big time investment in learning a language that has little or few demonstrated pay-offs, largely because of cultural interest, and that having your interest denied in such summary fashion is a slap in the face.

  46. […] or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… […]

  47. China PCV Says: October 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Great post. I actually just came back from a dinner with a group of my college students and read this. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving at a rural college, and while I very often get the above situation out on the street, I’ve learned that the majority of students in rural areas actually prefer to speak in Chinese (ok, actually they want to speak in English, but they’re too nervous to do it). I think they speak in Chinese to me for their own comfort as my oral Chinese is at a higher level then their oral English. At the dinner I was just at, they brought up the fact that I use a lot of Chinese in class, and they want me to use English more. I completely understand this as it’s different from being out and about (my job is to teach them English), but right after requesting this they reverted right back to speaking in Chinese. And to be honest, it was so much better than if we used English. Many of my students tell me the same thing my friends in Japan used to tell me; if I didn’t speak their language they wouldn’t be hanging out with me (and we would probably never get past all the formalities that are so hard to break through even after a long time). They get extremely flustered and nervous when they try to or are forced to speak English, but when we use their language, I can see what their personalities are really like as they’re much more relaxed (this only works with my students though as nobody else ever gets past being nervous around me and asking me the same annoying questions). But I totally have experienced the ‘language battle’ situation countless times and it’s incredibly annoying.

  48. I’m a fluent Chinese speaker and I find it interesting that people ask me where I “studied” Chinese, as if taking courses in Chinese will ever make you fluent. I always say Nanjing University, but what I should say is in the bar across the street from Nanjing University.

  49. Why do so many Chinese people insistently respond in English when a foreigner speaks to them in Chinese?…

    There are many reasons, the main ones are listed below in no particular order: * There are no non-Chinese people born and raised in China. In all prior experience to most Chinese people: foreigners speak English. For folks who grew up in China, this ha…

  50. I often had interesting situations when I was in China. My Chinese is only passable, my girlfriend is American-Chinese so basically fluent and our mutual friend was Chinese with English on a par with my girlfriend’s Chinese. The conversation was generally in Chinese (the two girls liked to gossip!) and I would follow along, join in when I could and ask for translations if I missed something. Definitely improved my listening skills anyway!

  51. I’ve honestly never really run into this problem. If someone INSISTS on speaking English to me, I usually just say “不好意思,你讲的是哪个语言呢?” or if their English is obviously good ”不好意思,我是来中国学汉语的。请跟我讲中文” and then walk off if they keep speaking in English.

    Honestly though, I haven’t met many people who actually speak English, much less people who INSIST on speaking it. Most people I’ve run into are like “我已经学了10年英语了,怎么还不会说呢?! 囧”

  52. […] few months, you might have come across what some have termed—such as Benny the Irish Polyglot and John Pasden—“the language power […]

  53. […] in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and […]

  54. […] wins out. This girl didn’t even didn’t give it a shot and it happens almost every day (this article sums the situation up perfectly). I’ve gotten answers from people saying they just want to […]

  55. […] Ah, the classic problem amongst most Western language learners. This is known colloquially amongst the language learning community as the ‘language power struggle’. […]

  56. What a great article. I’ve just discovered your blog through ChinesePod (which I also love), and in fact I just wrote an article on my own Chinese learning blog about how you talked about finding bored people to speak with!

    The language power struggle argument is extremely interesting.
    Surely if you try to talk to people in a University setting, a far greater proportion will want to practice their English on you (as they may be learning it), but if you go elsewhere, to the park or whatever, wouldn’t it be fairly easy to find people who have no interest in learning English?

  57. […] For a more scientific-esque discussion of language power struggles and why they actually occur in the first place, click here to see John Pasden of ChinesePod’s article on the subject. […]

  58. […] • En inglés hay una gran cantidad de información sobre el aprendizaje del chino que abordan con mucha más profundidad de lo que yo hecho cada uno de sus aspectos. Entre mis favoritos está Sinosplice, con muchísima experiencia en el tema y gran cantidad de artículos. En uno de los últimos, por ejemplo, habla de las batallas lingüísticas entre chinos y extranjeros. […]

  59. […] note: not too long ago, these same learners were likely struggling to get Chinese people to talk to them in Chinese, so from that perspective, this problem is a good one to […]

  60. […] only broken English despite the fact that you are speaking to them using Chinese. This is a common language power struggle (please refer to John Pasden‘s excellent blog Sinosplice for more about this topic [and check […]

  61. […] that Hong Kong is, in general, a lousy place to learn Chinese. My first few months were filled with ‘language power struggles’, which were annoying, demotivating, and detrimental to my progress. (Luckily I did eventually make […]

  62. […] my Chinese and they wanted to improve their English. We were at an impasse! One might even say, a language power struggle. In many ways I was right. Most people my age in Taiwan really did want to learn English and their […]

  63. […] learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is […]

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